Archive for the 'Pre-Game' Category

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Lakers, Celtics and the Board Battle

Is it this simple?

Whichever arch basketball rival gathers more rebounds wins the game?

Well, it was certainly the case for the tightly contested 2010 NBA Finals between the Lakers and Celtics:

2010 Finals Game 1: Lakers 102, Celtics 89
Boards: L.A. 42-31 (Gasol, 14)
Game 2 Celtics 103, Lakers 94
Boards: Boston 44-39 (Rondo, 12)
Game 3 Lakers 91, Celtics 84
Boards: L.A. 43-35 (Gasol, Andrew Bynum 10)
Game 4 Celtics 96, Lakers 89
Boards: Boston 41-34 (Kendrick Perkins, 7)
Game 5 Celtics 92, Lakers 86
Boards: Boston 35-34 (Garnett, 10)
Game 6 Lakers 89, Celtics 67
Boards: L.A. 52-39 (Gasol, 13)
Game 7 Lakers 83, Celtics 79
Boards: L.A. 53-40 (Gasol, 18)

Ditto in Boston’s 2010-11 regular season win two weeks ago in Los Angeles.

Jan. 30, 2011: Celtics 109, Lakers 96
Rebounds: 43-30 Boston (Kevin Garnett, 13)

But in the four regular season meetings prior to this season, dating back to the Christmas Day game at STAPLES Center in 2008, the team with the most rebounds actually lost the game.

Feb. 18, 2010: Celtics 87, Lakers 86
Boards: Lakers 50-43 (Lamar Odom, 14)
Jan. 31, 2010: Lakers 90, Celtics 89
Boards: Celtics 39-36 (Perkins, 10)
Feb. 5, 2009: Lakers 110, Celtics 109
Boards: Boston 47-42 (Perkins, 9)
Dec. 25, 2008: Lakers 92, Celtics 83
Boards: Boston 40-35 (Paul Pierce, 10)

If you look more closely, the two results last season were more about Kobe Bryant, who missed the second game as the Lakers failed to execute down the stretch, and hit the game winner on Jan. 31 at the buzzer to save his team after Boston had played better throughout the evening.

In the previous year, the Lakers were the team with more general hunger, having just lost to Boston in the 2008 Finals, and were outrebounded in part due to the absence of injured Andrew Bynum in the road contest.

Ultimately, rebounding is a combination of effort (which team has a greater sense of urgency is often key), sheer size (the Celtics are about the only team who can match L.A.) and luck (as Kobe Bryant said, sometimes it’s just where the ball bounces off the rim). Furthermore, it reflects which team shoots the ball better, as there are more opportunities to collect boards for the better-shooting squad, as their opponent will have had more shots clang off the rim.

A betting man would say that whichever team rebounds better in Boston for the final 2010-11 regular season meeting will win the game, but as past regular season matchups have shown, it certainly won’t be a guarantee.

Lakers Draw Mavs for First Time in 2010-11

Two weeks ago, the Dallas Mavericks were jostling with the San Antonio Spurs for the top seed in the Western Conference, losing only five times in 29 games with Dirk Nowitzki leading many early season MVP ballots.

But on Dec. 28 at Oklahoma City, the German power forward who arguably keeps Pau Gasol from being called the best European player in the NBA sprained his knee after landing awkwardly on a jumper. Three games later, the team’s next-best shot creator, Caron Butler, ruptured the patellar tendon of his right knee. In related news, the Mavericks have lost 9-of-11 games, including their last six in a row, while struggling considerably to find their early season rhythm.

And who can blame ‘em, as on top of the Nowitzki/Butler injuries, defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler — whom none other than Phil Jackson volunteered as an All-Star candidate — has missed the last two games with the flu.

The Lakers have had their own injury issues, most notably in the form of Andrew Bynum missing the team’s first 24 games of the season, which took its toll on the loss column and on the legs of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Sure enough, since Bynum’s return, the Purple and Gold have won 10-of-12 games. Also hurt are Theo Ratliff (knee soreness), who hasn’t played since early November, and Matt Barnes (arthroscopic knee surgery), expected to miss another seven weeks or so after tearing meniscus.

In stark contrast, the Spurs have stayed healthier than any team in the NBA, missing nary a game to injury while Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Co. roll through the season, establishing a league-best mark of 35-6 (.854), good for a 4.5-game lead on the Lakers (31-12, .721) and now, suddenly, 8.5-game edge over the Mavericks (26-14, .650).

It’s the latter two teams that will meet for the first time this season on Wednesday evening in Dallas. Nowitzki is back, fresh off a 32-point performance in Detroit, and Chandler’s expected to play opposite Bynum, while Barnes and Butler will be in street clothes.

The Lakers seem to be rounding, if deliberately, into form, while whether or not the Mavericks can reclaim some of their early-season rhythm remains to be seen. This even if the Lakers expect Mark Cuban’s squad to play with fervor, as is always the case when Kobe Bryant brings his team to Texas.

Farmar, Vujacic Return to Los Angeles

With the New Jersey Nets coming to town for a Friday night contest against the Lakers, so too do two players that earned a pair of championship rings for L.A. in Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic.

Vujacic, traded in early December for Joe Smith, is playing a healthy 27.3 minutes per game, averaging 11.3 points with 3.1 rebounds and 1.17 steals. He hit a game-winning shot for the Nets last week against the Bulls, and scored 22 points against the Timberwolves on Jan. 1.

“I had seven great years here,” said Vujacic prior to Friday’s game. “I learned how to become a champion in the NBA, and this organization was always good to me from day one. When I come to L.A., it always feels like I’m home.”

Vujacic has been particularly happy to be playing minutes again, saying that he was “suffocating” without playing time, but is now “breathing again.”

Farmar has averaged 9.8 points in 24.7 minutes since signing with the Nets in the offseason, and played very well in the absence of usual starter Devin Harris against Milwaukee on Jan. 8, scoring 20 points with 10 assists in a narrow loss.

“I’m (excited),” said Farmar of returning to his hometown to collect his ring and play for the first time in an opposing jersey. “I don’t get excited about a lot of things, but we worked hard for it … it’s a big deal, and I’m trying to cherish it.”

When asked if he expects and nostalgia to kick in, Farmar talked about his former teammates.

“I’m always going to miss the guys here, and our relationships were amazing,” he said. “You miss the day-to-day interactions with all the guys you’ve been to war with, but I’m happy to be playing ball, learning and trying to grow in my career.

Farmar will receive his championship ring in a ceremony prior the game from Laker captains Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, while a video of Vujacic highlights with the Lakers will be shown at some point during the game.

Phil Jackson Talks Artest, Cuban, Etc.

Below is a transcript of a selection of Phil Jackson’s comments in his regular media session prior to L.A.’s Tuesday evening home game against Detroit, including Jackson’s reactions to a “man-to-man” confrontation with Ron Artest at practice and some comments from Mark Cuban.

You can also listen to the audio by clicking play at the bottom of the post.

On if a Yahoo! report referring to a practice confrontation initiated by Ron Artest were accurate:
Jackson: No, that’s not accurate. But it’s close to accurate. It was not a loud confrontation, it was a man-to-man confrontation. It was obviously out of character for both that to happen in practice and for Ron. It wasn’t about (my) embarrassing (Ron) in public, it was about some of the issues that had been brought up and were focused (on) him. It was direct, but it wasn’t loud … It’s nothing more than what could normally happen at a practice. Obviously there is a spy, or camera, or leak or something went on at our practice, but those are the things that happen at practice. It’s not the first time, and it’s not going to be the last. Ron came in and apologized not only to me but in front of the team for what he said was a distraction at practice. That was his own desire to do so, I didn’t solicit it from him.

In Ron’s defense, I’ve been trying to motivate him through a variety of activities, starting from the very beginning. Talking about his activity level, and sometimes about his bizarre behavior. He wants it to be in private. I just said, ‘Don’t act it out in public and then we can keep it private.’

On if the conversation will affect the way Jackson interacts with Artest:
Jackson: Sure.

On Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban’s comments to his assessment of Caron Butler’s injury:
Jackson: Mark must be really worried. If he’s got to comment on that, he must be really worried. I feel badly for (the Mavericks), that’s what I was saying. It’s hard to replace a player that good. They do have a good player that’s sitting behind him. Shawn (Marion) is a fine player, but it’s not Caron Butler. It’s hard to replace a player like that.

On Cuban referring to Jackson as Lakers VP Jeanie Buss’s “Boy Toy.”
Jackson: I love it. I consider myself an old man. That I’m a “Boy Toy,” that’s terrific … Mark gets riled up when I make comments about his team, but they were leading the league. It’s a big blow to a team that’s playing that well.

On why he feels reactions to the comments he makes are so strong:
Jackson: They must be misconstrued. Either that, or the tenor in which I say them must not go the same way as the tenor of what the conversation is about. The one that is probably the most egregious is the Houston thing about disrespecting Rudy (Tomjanovich), because that was so off the cuff and so solicited by the reporter itself that it was kind of unfair to take those things on.

Matt Barnes: Just Tupac

If you approach a headphone-wearing Matt Barnes in the locker room before Lakers games, you might not be able to guess exactly what song he’s listening to … but there is a quick way to narrow it down, because it’s definitely a track by Tupac Shakur.

“I’ve got about 400 Tupac songs on my iPod,” revealed Barnes. “And I just rotate.”

While chatting with Barnes about the video scouting reports he studies to prep for literally any player that he might guard throughout a game — from point guards to power forwards — I noticed one of my personal favorite songs from Tupac’s “All Eyez on Me” album (“Heartz of Men”) blaring out of his headphones. I told Barnes that happened to be my first hip hop album, and that in fact, I played the CD so often on my Discman it became so scratched that I had to purchase many of the songs on iTunes.

Barnes, who was listening to Tupac growing up in Sacramento in the 1990′s while I was doing the same in Minneapolis, understood exactly what was so appealing.

“Tupac paints a picture for you,” he said. “He really makes you understand what’s going on in his life … I always keep it on ‘Pac.”

His favorite album is also “All Eyez On Me,” though he’s also partial to “Makaveli – The 7 Day Theory.”

In 2pac conclusion, Barnes also gave us his five favorite tracks right now, a list that changes periodically:

1) “Letter 2 My Unborn”
2) “Secretzs of War”
3) “Against All Odds”
4) “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted”
5) “Who Do You Believe In?”

Lakers Ready to Get Grizzly in Memphis

Exactly four weeks ago, the Lakers (13-4) welcomed the Grizzlies (7-10) to STAPLES Center in a somewhat crude manner, thoroughly dominating what was eventually a 124-105 win by taking a 34-23 lead after one quarter, reaching 73 points at halftime and holding a 97-76 lead after three quarters that enabled the starters to use the fourth quarter to ice up.

They certainly don’t expect things to be so easy in Memphis on Tuesday night, as a Grizz team looking for revenge comes in having won three consecutive games at home. We compared some of the respective team’s numbers up to this point of the season to take a closer look:

Point/game: LAL rank 1st and MEM 13th
FG pct. LAL 9th and MEM 10th
FT pct. LAL 2nd and MEM 25th
3-pt FG pct. LAL 2nd, MEM 23rd
Off. Reb./gm LAL 5th, MEM 11th
Def. Reb./gm LAL 3rd, MEM 23rd
Reb./gm: LAL 3rd, MEM 17th
Asst./gm: LAL 4th, MEM 21st(t)
Stls./gm: MEM 2nd, LAL 9th
TO’s./gm: LAL 6th, MEM 25th
Blks./gm: LAL 13th(t), MEM 20th(t)

A few other notes heading into the contest:

- The Lakers have won eight of the last 10 games between the two teams and lead the all-time series 43-14.
- The Lakers have won five of six games at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.
- Kobe Bryant surpassed Jerry West’s all-time Lakers scoring record last season in Memphis during a 44-point outburst, but L.A. lost when Ron Artest missed a potential game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.
- Pau Gasol remains the Grizzlies all-time leader in points (8,966), rebounds (4,096) and blocks (877).
- Since the Lakers acquired Gasol from the Grizzlies on Feb. 1, 2008, they have lost three consecutive games only once, at Miami, Charlotte and Orlando last March. In related news, of Phil Jackson’s 11 championship teams, only three have lost three consecutive games during the regular season.
- Rudy Gay is off to a terrific start to the season for the Grizz after re-signing with the team, averaging career highs in points (21.5), rebounds (6.9), assists (2.9) and minutes (40.5, first in the NBA).
- O.J. Mayo has recently moved the the bench, with lottery pick Xavier Henry now starting as coach Lionel Hollins looks for more scoring punch off the pine.

Shannon Brown’s Shooting

62442385Eleven games into the 2010-11 season, Lakers reserve Shannon Brown is shooting the ball nearly as successfully as the Beatles archive just started selling on iTunes.

Not only does Brown rank 22nd in the NBA and second among shooting guards (Ben Gordon, 15th) in field goal percentage (.523), but perhaps more importantly for L.A.’s actual game results, he’s been on fire from three-point range.

Boosted by his 4-for-4 fourth quarter performance from downtown in the Lakers’ 118-107 Tuesday night victory in Milwaukee, Brown’s now hitting 51.3 percent of his threes (20-of-39), leading his team in makes.

“He had a great contribution (against the Bucks), he was terrific,” said Phil Jackson. “Everybody told Shannon (coming out of college) that he had to learn how to shoot a jump shot and he’s taken that seriously, worked hard on it, and now he’s a legitimate three-point shooter.”

Hampered in part by a thumb injury in the second half of last season and in part by a tendency to rush or force action at times, Brown shot only 42.7 percent from the field and 32.8 percent from three last season, and played just 14 minutes per game in the playoffs.

Since L.A.’s Game 7 victory over Boston, Brown has been in the gym.

“He’s a worker,” said Kobe Bryant, repeating the phrase for emphasis. “Not only is he talented (and) physically gifted, but he puts the work in, which you don’t see a lot of players do. Especially guys that are super athletic like he is, they don’t want to put the work in, but he has and continues to do so.”

Bryant — who has taken Brown under his wing, even calling him his ‘little brother’ — said that Brown’s improvement this year isn’t just about shooting, however. In fact, Bryant revealed that when he worked with or advised Brown over the summer, shooting wasn’t really a point of emphasis.

“Just ball-handling,” Bryant explained. “He’s always been a solid shooter, and he’s really worked on it since he got here, and now he’s even a better shooter than he was last year. But you see him now making plays off the dribble, making plays for others, passing off the dribble. He continues to get better, this is just the beginning for him.”

Brown himself acknowledged that he’s more confident this year, and sounded quite a bit like big brother when describing why.

“It’s just all about going out there, slowing down and taking what the defense gives,” he said. “Not trying to do too much.”

When asked how Bryant influenced him particularly over the summer, Brown shared an anecdote that explained a key point towards understanding the Maywood, Illinois native’s improvements.

“One thing (Kobe) told me at the beginning of this season when we were (at the team’s practice facility) lifting,” said Brown. “I told him, ‘Man I’m ready to get this thing going.’ (Kobe) was just like, ‘Relax.’ The season is going to come quick enough, go out there and just relax, have fun and play basketball and that’s what I’m doing. I value his opinion very much, everything that he’s accomplished individually and as a team, so when he tells me things, I do take heed.”

Sure enough, Brown has been noticeably more under control this season. Standing open on the weak side of the defense after Bryant or Pau Gasol drew a double team, 2009-10 Brown may have caught the ball, dribbled between his legs and tried to get to the hoop. But 2010-11 Brown will catch the ball, raise up for an open jumper, and more often than not find the bottom of the net.

That seems to be thanks as much to his mindset as it is to any actual improvements in his shot, and thus far, the Lakers are reaping the benefits.

George Karl Has Plenty of Praise For Pau

60109854Prior to L.A.’s Thursday evening contest in Denver — which Phil Jackson called the team’s biggest test of the season — his Nuggets’ coaching counterpart George Karl had the following to say about Pau Gasol after watching some Lakers film throughout the past few days:

Gasol … I don’t want to tell you how good I thought he was. He was really good in the games I watched. My thing with my staff was, who has played better than this kid in the last 10 years? A big guy. Name a big guy that’s playing better than (Gasol right now). He (and Odom) are great rebounders, they’re good runners and they’re efficient. When they touch the ball, something good happens. One game, Gasol had to be like 85 percent. Decisions – he’s making passing decisions, he’s making low-post decisions, he’s making high-post decisions, transition decisions. He’s playing like a guard a little bit.

Karl also shared that he’d prefer to have his team guard Gasol when he’s playing the high post – as he does more often when Andrew Bynum’s in the game – than the low post, but explained why it’s a ‘pick your poison’ game:

I’d prefer him in the high post. I beleive the further away you are, the worse percentage you’re going to shoot. But he’s still pretty good out there. The further he gets away from the basket, the more he’s a distributor. But they do a good job of balancing, they’re going to put him in both places. What he’s done very good is he and Kobe have gotten a knack, Kobe draws two and they throw it to (Gasol) and he finds the open man. Most teams have to cover Kobe with two, or at least one and a half.

Lakers – Rockets Ring Night Preview

D070459025.JPGFor a full preview of the 2010-11 Houston Rockets, click here for a podcast we recorded with beat writer Jason Friedman.

Before the Lakers take the STAPLES Center floor to open the 2010-11 regular season against Houston, the nine remaining players from last season’s championship-winning roster will line up one by one to receive their rings. Special to all, of course, even those exceptional two (Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher) who already have four rings apiece in their closets.

But it’s the first ring for Ron Artest, a driving force throughout his first season as a Laker after coming over from Houston as a free agent in a virtual trade for Trevor Ariza. Artest chose to stay in the locker room on Ring Night 2009 while Bryant, Lamar Odom and others claimed their championship rings last October, trying to envision himself in that role in 2010. Funny how things work out.

“I’m real happy because Ron gets to experience it this time,” said Odom. “I’ve known him for a long time, and people in our basketball family back in New York … there are a lot of proud people.”

Ironically, Artest will be auctioning off his ring in part to raise money for children’s mental health initiatives, but Derek Fisher said on Monday that he can see an additional motivation to Artest’s generous nature. In giving away the ring he worked so hard for, perhaps Artest can draw that much more motivation towards earning another one?

D064650030.jpgBut all that, according to Phil Jackson and Artest himself, should have nothing to do with how the Lakers perform on the basketball floor against the Rockets. After collecting pieces of jewelry so large from NBA Commissioner David Stern that making layups would be difficult, it’s up to the defending champs to clear the mechanism.

“It’s different than the emotions of playing the game,” Jackson explained after the team’s final preseason practice. “It’s about thinking about last year and the teammates that you had on that team, about the effort that went into winning that championship.

“You have to divorce yourself from it after that’s done. The banner is raised, the rings are in your hand and you have to go out and play, you have to bring that (separate) intensity to it.”

Jackson went on to detail why the Lakers have essentially been preparing for two different teams coached by Rick Adelman, depending on whether or not Yao Ming is on the floor. Much publicized throughout training camp has been the 24-minute limit the Rockets have placed on Yao’s services, and the Chinese center’s affect on an opponent’s game plan.

“With Yao on the floor, you know that they’re going to feed the ball to him (due to) how good a player he is and how great a target he is to catch the ball in the lane,” Jackson said. “When he’s out of the ball game, they play a very fluid, high-post game in which a lot of things happen where there is very little support defensively.”

Expected to start alongside Yao up front are Luis Scola and Shane Battier, with a backcourt made up of high-volume shooters Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks. Key potential contributors off a bench full of mid-level talents searching for playing time include Courtney Lee, Kyle Lowry, Chuck Hayes, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries. Hayes missed Houston’s last two games with a sprained ankle but is ready to play, as is Lowry (back spasms).

The Lakers come in nearly as healthy, with only Andrew Bynum (knee) and Luke Walton (hamstring) out of the lineup, while Lamar Odom (thumb, nose, back) and Theo Ratliff returned to practice on Monday.

“I’m all right,” said Odom, who was banged up in L.A.’s back-to-back wins over Golden State last week. “I’m ready to play, just ready to go out there. We’ve practiced enough … we’re ready to compete.”

Odom will start alongside Pau Gasol and Ron Artest in the front court with Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher at the guards. Bryant, who spent the preseason experimenting with his legs on offense (i.e. 28.2 percent from the field), told Jackson that he’s OK to play more than 30 minutes against Houston, and has put himself under no Ming-like limitations.

The defensive matchups for both teams will be interesting to watch: Fisher and backup Steve Blake will attempt to stay in front of one of the league’s quickest players in Brooks, who averaged 23 points in four games against L.A. last season (three of them losses) and took an average of nine three-pointers a contest. Artest will likely have to chase Martin around with Bryant sticking to Battier, though each could cross-match. Odom will deal with Scola’s variety of post moves, while Gasol faces one of the few players in the NBA with an actual height advantage on him.

On the other end, Artest is likely to drag Martin beneath the basket to utilize a major strength advantage, while Odom and Gasol can draw Scola and Yao out to the perimeter and utilize respective quickness advantages. Bryant savors the chance to go at defensive specialist Battier — against whom he averaged 28.3 points in four 2008-09 wins and 24.5 points in 2009-10 — but is still rounding into form, while Fisher has no problem getting his shot off against the 6-0 Brooks.

When opening tip comes at just after 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, those will be the things about which Phil Jackson hopes his team is thinking, not their shiny new rings.

Lakers To Face Kings in Vegas

61942623It’s been nearly 18 days since training camp opened for the Lakers on Sept. 25, and finally the team will go through a routine game day experience, albeit in Las Vegas for a Wednesday evening matchup with the Kings.

After losing their first two preseason games in London and Barcelona, respectively, the Lakers are set for a full team shootaround, regular pregame media and warm up sessions and at 7 p.m. see how a few days of actual practice translates onto the basketball floor.

We identified seven things to watch for in tonight’s contest, which you can view on KCAL or listen to on 710/1330 AM ESPN:

1. KOBE’S PROGRESS: Good news came out of Tuesday’s practice in the Kobe Bryant knee watch, as Phil Jackson said his MVP looked “better than he’s looked so far.” Expect Kobe to play for roughly eight minutes in the first quarter and eight more in the third. If all goes well, Jackson allowed for the possibility of seeing more Kobe in the fourth quarter.

D072890037.jpg2. COUSINS, EVANS = STAR DUO TO BE? Over the past four seasons, the Kings have won just 33, 38, 17 and 25 games. But the squad’s recent lottery picks have optimism running through the California capitol city, with 2010′s No. 5 overall pick DeMarcus Cousins joining last season’s Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans. Through four preseason games, the large yet skilled Cousins has averaged 17 points and 9.5 rebounds in 24.5 minutes, while Evans was one of only three NBA players to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists last season. Of course, Evans-Cousins isn’t quite Kobe-Pau as a perimeter-interior package just yet, but there’s certainly reason for Kings optimism.

3. BLAKE/BARNES and the TRIANGLE: From L.A.’s coaching staff to its remaining players from the past two title teams, we’ve heard little but universal praise throughout the first two weeks of camp for the additions of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes in particular. The coaches like their intensity, desire to win and eagerness to fit in, while the players have been enthralled with respective skill sets for the two veterans. What remains to be seen is how far each have come with their understanding of the triangle offense. Jackson has detailed how well Blake has picked things up, but Barnes admitted on Tuesday that he’s still struggling a bit with recognizing variations within the offense. We’ll see how they look against the Kings.

4. PHIL’S ROTATION: While Phil Jackson’s rotation is at least somewhat predictable, there are still plenty of minutes to be assigned particularly as Andrew Bynum recovers from knee surgery. The starters are plugged in – Derek Fisher, Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol – but bench burn is a work in progress. Steve Blake looks to be the leading candidate for big minutes off the pine, but Matt Barnes may not be sitting for long. Then there’s the Shannon Brown/Sasha Vujacic tandem, with PT not just as Kobe’s backup but at the two guard spot available when Bryant plays on the wing. In the meantime, how often will we see Theo Ratliff and Derrick Caracter in the post in relief of Odom/Gasol, or rookie Devin Ebanks on the wing? We’ll see.

5. DEFENSIVE INTENSITY? The Lakers spent the bulk of Monday and Tuesday’s practices in El Segundo going back to the defensive basics of Phil Jackson’s system, and he’ll surely like to see some results even in a preseason game. L.A. turned up the defensive pressure only for a few minutes in Barcelona at the start of the third quarter (producing a big run, naturally), and even fewer in London, but with the season now only 13 days away, the defensive dogs should start to increasingly bark. Sure, the playoffs are far, far away, but a steady ramp-up process starts in the preseason.

6. SACRAMENTO’S PRINCES: While Evans and Cousins will demand the most attention, there are other talented players wearing purple and black for which the Lakers will have to account. Beno Udrih, who starts in the backcourt alongside Evans and handles many of the ball-handling duties, has given the Lakers problems for the past few years; Donte Greene is a matchup problem as a 6-10 forward who loves chucking threes; Carl Landry and Jason Thompson both aggressively attack the backboards and can finish; while Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia are fiery wing players that relish the chance to battle the likes of Bryant and Artest.

7. THE SPANIARD: As Bryant continues to get himself back to full health, L.A. knows it should run things more often through Gasol, who seems to gain more respect each time his wide array of skills come into view. Phil Jackson’s more than happy to encourage his players to increase the amount of touches afforded to Gasol, as good things seem to happen whenever he gets his hands on the ball. With six games across the next nine days, we should see a great deal of Gasol, and that’s never a bad thing.